A Recipe for Taboos
Why do food taboos exist? And how do we end them? Consider the lobster!
Editor’s Note: This month’s Amuse-Bouche comes from a special guest!is a writer, librarian, author of two books in the works, a stay-at-home dad, and the mind behind Better Strangers, a newsletter about books, parenting, art, nature, and life during what feels like the apocalypse. (I recently had a guest post on Better Strangers all about the not-so-basic pumpkin).
Matt’s work guides readers through hard-to-discuss topics with humor, compassion, and hope oftentimes giving advice on things we can do on the individual level to make a meaningful impact. The history and culture of taboos is a topic Matt has covered for several years. In fact, in 2018, he was my expert guest on a pilot episode of The Side Dish, a podcast I produced but didn’t get off the ground. As a special treat, I’m including our unaired Food Taboos episode on the Amuse-Bouche podcast and in this newsletter.
Real talk: We should all be eating bugs. Insects are high in protein, and as far as animal proteins go, they are one of the most sustainable, low-impact-on-the-environment foods you can eat. They are also incredibly easy and cheap to farm or forage and have been proposed by the UN as an excellent solution to global food insecurity. And they’re tasty! Crickets have a nutty umami flavor, scorpions have been compared to crab, and sago grubs have been compared to bacon.
More real talk: You’re probably not going to start eating bugs. Every third Tweet these days is “I wanna save the planet but PAPER STRAWS ARE WHERE I DRAW THE LINE” so bug-eating, or entomophagy, formally, is maybe a bit too bitter of a pill to swallow. All the legs and antennae on that pill don’t help.
I am here to tell you: it’s okay. This does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a normal human in a normal human culture. Because in the United States, bug-eating is taboo, and taboos are hard to break.
It’s worth noting, though, that almost no food taboo is totally universal, and that much of the rest of the world doesn’t bat an eye at eating insects. In Oaxacan cuisine, chapulines (crickets) are used in a wide variety of foods. Larvae, honeybees, and grubs are commonly eaten in the islands of Oceania. In Africa, around Lake Malawi, people make Kunga Cakes, which are pies made out of the compressed flies that can be caught by the swarm. In fact, the only part of the world in which entomophagy isn’t, if not the norm, then at least accepted, is the West.
And to remind you — in the west, we eat snails! We eat oysters! We eat cheese that comes out of a spray paint can!
None of this is to say that the foods we or others eat are “weird,” it’s just to say our standards for what is taboo and what isn’t is more or less arbitrary, and instead of being dictated by good common sense, taboos are dictated by the forces of history, economics, and war.
To explain what I mean, let’s discuss the history of the lobster.
Lobster all day
Lobsters are members of the crustacean family in the arthropod phylum. This phylum, incidentally, also includes butterflies, pillbugs, and scorpions, all critters we would non-bug eaters would classify as “bugs.” Prior to western settlers arriving in New England, local Algonquian-speaking tribes heavily relied upon lobster as a source of protein. They were easy to harvest because they would often wash up on the shore in huge numbers after a storm, so they could simply be picked off of the beach and cooked over a fire right there. When the European settlers arrived, Algonquian tribes like the Wampanoag would’ve clued them into the abundance of lobster on their shores.
But the first few years in the New World were notoriously rough for the European settlers, as they did not have the hunting or foraging skills of the Native tribes, and in those early winters, many of the settlers went hungry. So where the Wampanoag ate the plentiful lobster as part of their diet, for many of the new settlers, lobster quickly became most of their diet.
When lobster dies, it releases stomach enzymes that make the lobster meat go bad incredibly quickly. This is the reason that even today, lobster is usually cooked alive, or immediately after killing.
So try to imagine that: You’re starving. And the only thing to eat is a beach covered in dead and dying lobster. The stench of that rot may have never left your nose, and even in years of abundance, the smell of lobster would’ve turned your stomach.
It’s for this reason that, for a long time in New England, lobster was considered a trash food, a food of last resort. It was a food that one only ate when one was hungry. Because of this association with poverty and hunger, lobster became locally taboo.
So what changed the lobster from a taboo food to a delicacy? A few things.
The first was that, during the Civil War, to get troops and provisions from the North down to the South where all the battlefields were, the Federal Government had to lay down enormous amounts of new railroad tracks. At the same time, they needed cheap provisions that could be canned and delivered to the thousands of soldiers fighting for the North.
Lobster was an easy choice: it was plentiful, cheap protein that could be canned after it was cooked, and which the locals had no real interest in eating themselves.
After the war, the railroads still existed but had much less to do, so they were repurposed for tourism. America’s growing middle class, fresh off the patriotic glow of winning the war, began to visit the cradle of American democracy on what’s now known as the Freedom Trail in Boston.
Perhaps some of them remembered eating canned lobster in the war, and decided to try it fresh. The locals would only be too happy to feed trash food to gullible tourists at a high premiums, and those tourists would’ve recognized what the locals had long since forgot: that fresh lobster is goddamn delicious. Word spread, and lobster became a sought after food.
What truly ended lobster’s status as a taboo trash food, though, was its adoption by the upper class. Because lobster has to be cooked alive, it was very difficult to transport outside of New England. You needed to keep it in climate-controlled water tanks, which made fresh lobster outside of its natural territory expensive to ship. This made eating lobster into a status symbol of sorts. The taboo was chipped away at for decades, and now, demand for lobster is at an all-time high, and is generally considered a delicacy rather than a trash food.
Taboos and learning disgust
The story of the lobster is hardly extraordinary — you could tell a similar story for any other global food taboo. To give one more example, the taboo against eating cow in Hindu societies is hypothesized by some to be a side-effect of the fact that livestock were once considered a source of wealth in the Indian subcontinent, so to kill a cow was to signal that you needed to literally eat into your savings. The shame associated with this act eventually became codified in the religious text The Mahabharata and hardened into a major taboo.
This confluence of historic and economic forces play a huge role in our collective behavior, and it can make some foods — which a truly rational being would see as mere calories, and thus not worth wringing hands over — as disgusting.
The way this plays out in our own bodies is particularly bizarre. At our old job, Kae Lani and I once visited a Philly taco joint that served chapulines tacos. Prior to the visit, I’d done a bunch of research on how entomophagy was a viable and sustainable source of protein, and I had genuinely talked myself into the idea that I could really get into eating bugs.
We met with the chef, who showed us how he prepared the crickets, and then he gave us a table where we sampled several different styles of chapulines tacos. It was tasty! I genuinely enjoyed it. We shook the chef’s hand, and then I got in my car to drive home, when I noticed something caught in my teeth: the leg of a cricket.
I can only describe what I felt as revulsion.
I had no reason to! I love oysters, even though they are briney slime you literally slurp out of a shell. I’ve eaten squids and scorpions and sea urchins and eels. I pride myself on being an adventurous eater.
So why the horrible reaction to a food that isn’t all that categorically different from the seafood I regularly eat by the truckload?
The science of disgust
Neuroscientists who study the emotion of disgust recognize it as an important motivational tool for keeping us from eating things that could potentially become toxic or dangerous, like fecal matter or rotten food. This revulsion to eating food that has already rotted or eating poop is more or less instinctive.
But disgust can also be learned. The learned form of disgust is effectively a social phenomenon: we grow to think things are disgusting because everyone around us says they are. This is dangerous, because our social disgust tends to be reserved for people who belong to marginalized social, religious, or ethnic outgroups. These learned behaviors may be nothing more than sheer bigotry, but the person feeling that disgust is experiencing an emotion that may well be indistinguishable from the idea of eating rotten food. To the person feeling the disgust, the emotion is real, even though it’s not instinctive, but learned. Our bodies, then, are not purely our own — our societies manage to fight their darkest battles in them.
The good news is that what can be learned can be unlearned, and the forces of history and economics never stop moving and changing. So if we expose ourselves to new things — whether that be new types of food or new types of people — we can rewire the part of our brain that says that which is strange to me is disgusting.
Now: might I offer you a snack?
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